Behind the Walls in the Land of the Pure

Mariam S. Pal

“Mariam, I am both speechless and impressed.” My cousin Ameera looked at me from across her New England kitchen table.

“I lived my whole life in Lahore until coming here ten years ago.  Nobody ever invited me to one of those parties. You know, I thought they were an urban myth. But you – you were invited to one right after you got off the airplane!”

Ameera was right. It didn’t take me long to get behind Lahore’s high walls and see what was on the other side. Once I got there, nothing was the way I expected it to be.


“Welcome!” said our host, Imran. He embraced Ali warmly. Hesitantly, he held out his hand to me.

I smiled, reciprocated his limp handshake and said, “Lovely to meet you!”

“Thank you. Punch?” He winked at me, put his arm around Ali’s shoulder and gestured towards a long table near the outdoor pool where red-jacketed waiters filled glasses. “Dirty punch on the right. Just love the matching outfits you two!”

It was a brisk November 1986 evening in Lahore, Pakistan. Ali and I had just arrived at Imran’s party at the dilapidated Diplomat Hotel. 27 and just out of grad school, I was part of a Canadian team working in Pakistan for an international organization. We were there to design a project to help manufacturers.  The team comprised of two male engineers, well into middle age, and myself, the junior economist. Two senior economists on the team never showed up, making me de facto team leader. We all resided at the five-star Sapphire Hotel.

Lahore was familiar; as a child and as a young woman, I had vacationed there with my parents visiting my father’s Pakistani family. When I told my Lahore relatives that I would be working there, they insisted that I stay with them.  That I, an unmarried woman, would stay alone at a hotel was inconceivable. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I discussed the situation with my father. He was sympathetic.

“Middle Uncle’s house is like Grand Central Station at 5 p.m.!” I pointed out. “Four families live there – I’ll never get anything done.”

Papa laughed. “Work?! Impossible! I’ll write to my brother.”

An exchange of airmail letters and telegrams between my father, Middle Uncle and me ensued.  Papa first sent his brother a telegram, signing it with the name his family called him, Izzmia: “Mariam ETA Lahore Oct 22 STOP Letter follows STOP IZZMIA.”

Papa wrote Middle Uncle clarifying that as I was working in Lahore, it made sense for me to stay in the same hotel as my colleagues.  I wrote Middle Uncle, too. Not only was I a team member, I explained, but I needed access to reliable international phone lines and to a telex machine. Middle Uncle eventually came to understand I needed to stay in the hotel but asked I have dinner with the family every night and spend weekends with them. I agreed.

At the Sapphire, I met an eclectic group of party-loving expatriates and Pakistanis. Virtually overnight, as the only single female hotel guest, I had an instant, glittering social life. Through this frenzied lens, I saw a new Lahore. A city that was lively, worldly and astonishingly permissive. The Sapphire’s reputation preceded it, and my curious cousins constantly asked me about the people staying there.

“Is it true, Mariam, that there are bad people at your hotel? They say there is a lot of drinking at the Sapphire,” said one of my cousins.

One night after dinner, when my cousin dropped me off at the hotel, Middle Uncle’s wife came along for the ride. She clucked disapprovingly from the back seat of the car at a group of stylish women clustered outside the front door waiting for their car.

“The women here dress so immodestly. Shameful.”

I listened but said nothing. I didn’t want them to know about all the fun I was having. I talked to them about the work I was doing, visiting businesses and factories with the team and our government counterparts.

Most evenings, I joined my family for dinner. I usually spent weekends exploring one of Lahore’s many historic sites with Middle Uncle, who was thrilled by my interest. Later in the evening, after I returned to the hotel, I often went out with my new friends. I thought of it as my second shift. I knew my conservative family would not approve, so I kept these activities to myself. Once or twice a week, I ate dinner with my team.

Invitations to receptions, private concerts and dinners filled my hotel mailbox.  One was to an elegant affair at the Sapphire. White-jacketed waiters served exquisite hors d’oeuvres and freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juices. Although the public face of Pakistan eschewed alcohol, plenty of boozing happened behind closed doors. The accommodating Sapphire management set up a private bar in the unused sauna. A Christian bartender served up G & Ts and beer to thirsty expats who missed happy hour. He cheerfully poured a jigger of vodka into my fresh orange juice. A photographer snapped photos of all the guests, and the hotel slid copies under our hotel room doors the next day. One I still have showed me poolside in a bright pink sweater and black leather pants.  I was smiling broadly with a drink in my hand.  I was having a ball.

The expats and Pakistani bourgeois I hung out with talked incessantly about drinking, the forbidden fruit. A 1977 ban on the purchase and consumption of alcohol by Muslims in Pakistan barely made a dent in the supply. There was money to be made from parched Pakistanis who appreciated a good scotch. Bootleggers made home deliveries carrying bottles in boxy legal briefcases. The rich reacted to the closure of public bars and clubs by constructing private discos and bars in their houses and grooving till dawn.

I was beginning to suspect an intriguing world existed behind the high walls surrounding most Pakistani homes. I wanted to know more about this world of “Pakistan,” literally meaning “land of the pure.”  The public face of Pakistan was of a nation of pious fruit juice drinking Muslims who prayed regularly and waited for marriage to have sex. Maybe things were not so pure as they seemed.

My hotel was a perfect vantage point to observe hanky-panky, Lahore style, such as some serious flirting between a wealthy Saudi businessman who lived there and, to my surprise, several female staff.  The chasers included Noor, who had married into one of the country’s most prestigious families.  Another woman who worked at the Sapphire told me that Noor never wore the same outfit twice. Supposedly, she worked at the hotel, although in which capacity was never clear. She seemed to spend most of her time taking tea in the lobby.  In the same breath, Noor admired my Parisian handbag and confided that her marriage was a sham.